Op-ed: Utah should grow into its gaps

Written by: Peter Reichard

When we think of growth, we often picture developers buying an old farm or ranch and building a subdivision. We picture a growing civilizational footprint, turning what was once green into something gray.

But Utah can look within the existing footprint for opportunities to grow. That means identifying sites within developed areas that are vacant or underutilized. Development of these sites is known as “infill.”

Multiple factors are now converging in Utah to make infill more imperative. Indeed, infill development — particularly multifamily housing — comprises an increasing proportion of new residential development along the Wasatch Front. That’s among the revelations in a new Utah Foundation report, “Filling in the Blanks: How Utah Communities Can Deploy Infill Development to Advance Quality of Life.”

“Building quality of life into growth” has been a Utah Foundation refrain during the past few years. The phrase recognizes that while growth is inevitable for the foreseeable future, poorly executed growth is not.

The infill report finds that infill development can offer a variety of benefits to local communities, including: an expanded housing supply; more attractive city and town centers; more efficient use of land; a strengthened local tax base; efficient delivery of public services and infrastructure; and improvements to overall quality of life.

But communities looking to promote infill must confront major obstacles. Among them are zoning, site issues, citizen opposition, cost uncertainties and ownership issues.

To smooth the way, local governments can begin by taking an inventory of potential sites and making key information on them publicly available. Clear, comprehensive and user-friendly information on the development approval process is also critical. Local governments may also consider creating a “fast-track” approval process for infill projects at targeted sites or in targeted redevelopment zones.

To measure success in promoting infill, local governments can formally target particular zones or sites, then deploy strategies and actions to those locations accordingly. Local governments can prioritize such target locations based on fixed strategic criteria and share the priority areas widely with the public.

Land use regulations are a potential challenge in any type of development. There are multiple means of recalibrating land-use requirements to encourage infill, including rezoning targeted areas, creating overlay zones and employing form-based codes.

Meanwhile, parking rules on the books may prevent infill development from meeting economies of scale for investors. Because existing surface parking lots are often prime opportunity sites for infill, local policymakers should take a hard look at whether existing parking requirements are too aggressive.

There’s also the bread-and-butter work of building civilization that has always been the basis for new development. Investing in infrastructure upgrades and streetscape enhancements at targeted opportunity sites can support the strategic focus of an infill program and attract private investment. Tapping into existing infrastructure investments is also important. As part of a formal infill strategy, policymakers should identify sites near mass transit lines.

Incentives offer another means of attracting development. Local governments can leverage federal support through mechanisms such as Opportunity Zones, the New Markets Tax Credit program and the EPA Brownfield Program. There’s also the allure of using local tax increment financing to attract development. But the dangers inherent in using public dollars to subsidize private developments means local governments should tread very carefully when spending these would-be tax dollars.  Limiting the use of tax increment financing revenues to public asset upgrades (rather than improving private balance sheets) can reduce those dangers.

Finally, there are soft-touch approaches like main street programs, public art, neighborhood rebranding campaigns and events that can help to create new interest and investment in target infill areas.

Creating a local strategy along these various lines is an important step in advancing infill projects. But there is no replacement for predictability in the eyes of a developer. Any infill plan worth its ink must be infused with comprehensive info, clear ground rules and economic realism. Otherwise, local governments may find that the blanks they’re filling in are just on paper.


This op-ed was originally published in the Deseret News at https://www.deseret.com/opinion/2022/10/24/23420905/infill-solves-utah-housing-crisis.

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